"Oregon Trail" Comes to Life at the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin

Posted on: March 21st, 2013 by David Weible 5 Comments

A school group gathers in front of the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin. Credit: Volunteers of the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin
A school group gathers in front of the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin.

If you spent any portion of your childhood in the 1980s or '90s, then invariably your favorite part of the school day was bucking the lesson plan in computer class and rabidly killing bison, fording rivers, and visiting Chimney Rock in the Oregon Trail video game. If you were unfortunate enough to have missed this phenomenon of modern pedagogy, then suffice it to say that the game, in which the player acted as the wagon master for a family that set out on the Oregon Trail from Missouri, was the greatest video game of all time.

In the video game, once you made it to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where many who traveled the actual Oregon Trail between the 1840s and 1860s settled, you were safe from the dangers of the trail and your educational experience ended. But in the case of the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin, located about 40 minutes southwest of downtown Portland on the banks of the Willamette River, the education and the danger (albeit not from raiding parties or diphtheria), continue today.

“There are very few log cabins left, as you can well imagine, and even though this one isn't an original log cabin from the 1840s and '50s, it represents that structure,” says Judy Van Atta, director of the Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin and the nearby Robert Newell House. “Everything within the cabin is an artifact that came across [the country] on the Oregon Trail, so it represents our beginnings here in Oregon and for the nation, the westward movement.”

A view of the annual Harvest Dinner taken from the cabin’s loft. Credit: David Krapes/Studio 315 Photography
A view of the annual Harvest Dinner taken from the cabin’s loft.

The cabin was dedicated in 1931 and sits on a piece of land originally claimed by Robert Newell, the first man brave (or crazy) enough to bring a wagon overland into the Willamette Valley and a pioneer of the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. Today, the site serves as an educational experience for thousands of school children each year to learn about the Oregon Trail, Oregon government, and other elements of the state’s history. On the day that I spoke to Van Atta, 85 second- through fourth-graders were visiting.

But even since the construction of the original cabin in the mid-1800s, the ground beneath it has been directly in the crosshairs of the Willamette River. In 1861, the flooding river washed away what used to be the nearby town of Champoeg. In 1891, the original cabin was swept away. In 1996, another flood rose to the mantel of today’s cabin and caused significant damage to the foundation.

Van Atta explained that because the cabin is located on the outside of a curve in the river, what was 75 feet of land between it and the water in 1931 is now just eight, and the threat of another flood grows larger every year.

“We have a hundred-year flood, they say, on the Willamette, which comes every 30 years basically,” says Van Atta. “Our only option is to move the cabin.”

Pioneer Mother Carrie Friedrich hosts a school tour. A local music teacher, she has also brought the music of the pioneers to the cabin for the children to enjoy. Credit: Ronald Peterson
Pioneer Mother Carrie Friedrich hosts a school tour. A local music teacher, she has also brought the music of the pioneers to the cabin for the children to enjoy.

The problem is that because the structure sits within a state park and is part of a historic archaeological district, they can’t disturb the land around it. Cutting down the surrounding trees so it can be moved in one piece to its new location at the nearby Robert Newell House, just above the floodplain, is also not an option. That means the cabin must be taken apart, log by log, catalogued, and rebuilt in its new location.

The museum has already completed the planning portion of the project and secured the variances needed to move the structure. Since introducing the idea to the public, they've raised roughly $75,000 and hope to raise another $75,000 privately before seeking matching grants to help reach the nearly $500,000 it will take to complete the project. It won’t be an easy task, but it’ll be worth the effort.

“Think of yourself as a second through fourth grader and you walk up to the women who are there with your school tour that are dressed in pioneer clothing,” says Van Atta. “It transports children in time... and to have children come up to you and talk to you like you actually are the woman that lived in this house when it was first built, it is amazing to see the looks in their eyes and the wonder at the fact that you lived like this.”

That’s something the video game could never quite do.

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David Weible

David Weible

David Weible is a content specialist for the National Trust, previously with Preservation magazine. He came to D.C. from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Local Preservationists, Restoration

5 Responses

  1. Saving a Piece of the Oregon Trail | Inside Arciform

    March 21, 2013

    […] a great blog post today on Preservation Nation on the efforts to preserve the “Pioneer Mother’s Memorial  […]

  2. Donna L. Wood

    March 21, 2013

    What an article! Many thanks to Judy VanAtta & the National Historic Preservation Magazine for getting this informative article together. As a former Building & Grounds Committee Chair person responsible for the maintenance of this building I am 100% in favor of this project!

  3. Kay Egle

    March 22, 2013

    Kudos to Champoeg Museums Buildings and Grounds Director, Judy Van Atta and those persons on staff of the National Preservation Magazine for this wonderful article featuring our Pioneer Mothers Memorial Cabin Museum. The Buildings and Grounds Committee and the “SAVE THE CABIN” project members are wprking very hard to save this building by moving it to higher ground. Because I worked as the caretaker of this Museum in 1996 when the river rose to the edge of the buildings, I personally know the danger is undeniably real and supporting this historic preservation project will provide valuable education opportunities for hundreds of children in the future.

  4. Roberta (Bertie) Mills

    March 22, 2013

    I’ve often visited the Pioneer Mother’s Memorial Cabin to enjoy their wonderful events. My favorite thing to do is to take a new visitor to the back of the cabin’s living room, open the door to the Tea Porch which overlooks the Willamette River, and watch them as ~ the view takes their breath away. Sadly, that same river may one day take the cabin away! My advice is that you visit the cabin soon as it must be moved to safety as quickly as possible. Many thanks go to Judy Van Atta and all her amazing volunteers who bring our Oregon history to life. Hopefully, it’ll soon be possible to rescue this amazing log cabin and its collection of pioneer artifacts.